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Hospitals and staff overwhelmed amid COVID-19 surge

hospitals concept.
A view of a hospital ward in Assam in response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic Image credit: AnjanBorah, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The initial wave of COVID-19 in India had already pushed hospitals to breaking point. The second wave has seen both daily cases and death counts triple, with many now dying simply through the lack of ability to avail healthcare.

While the initial wave lingered just below 100,000 cases for a short period before dropping, the current wave has surpassed 300,000 cases for more than a week. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Deaths are now so high that even crematoriums are reporting being overburdened, with round-the-clock cremations occurring in some areas. This fact alone summarises the dire situation faced by India.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has restarted its emergency response in the county in response to the sudden surge in cases. “The situation is very worrying,” says Dilip Bhaskaran, COVID-19 coordinator for MSF in Mumbai. “This is the largest upsurge since the pandemic started. MSF stands ready to further pace up its services in support of the health facilities that are currently completely overwhelmed.”

The rapid surge in new cases has led some to ask why a nation which was lauded internationally as handling the initial crisis of the first wave well has suddenly become the world’s most prominent COVID-19 hotspot. “We let our guard down,” Dr Shahid Jameel, one of India’s leading virologists, said. “It was complacency.”

Health Issues India noted at the beginning of the second wave a concept now referred to as “pandemic fatigue”.

“The rise has been attributed to a “lack of fear” of COVID-19, as termed by a three-member team (including Health Ministry Joint Secretary Nipun Vinayak) which visited Maharashtra [in March]. “While the exact causes of surge are not known…the possible factors are COVID-inappropriate behaviour due to lack of fear of disease, pandemic fatigue; miss outs and superspreaders; and enhanced aggregations due to recent gram panchayat elections, marriage season and opening of schools, crowded public transport, etc.,” according to a report shared by the government.”

Criticism of the government is abundant on the issue. As shortly ago as early March, Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan claimed India was in the “endgame” of the pandemic. Given the perception that the issue was largely over, many large scale events occurred, including cricket matches and religious gatherings. These were often attended by thousands of individuals, many maskless, and have since been speculated as superspreader events that have spurred the second wave.

“We celebrated too early,” says Dr Jameel. “Modellers were predicting a second wave. Historically, if you look at respiratory pandemics, they come back.” He added “nobody really expected it to be this big. We were really caught by surprise and it has completely overwhelmed the system.”

Hospitals have been left in a situation where they are simply unable to save everyone through lack of resources. Beds are in short supply. Oxygen shortages have created a situation in which many who are admitted to hospitals are dying from symptoms that would otherwise be treatable. These preventable deaths are a tragedy, and many are now blaming the hospitals themselves.

In Delhi and Pune, footage has emerged demonstrating that violence against doctors and medical staff has begun even amid the crisis of the second wave. In both cases the violence began following the deaths of individuals aged in their sixties. Relatives, following the deaths began to attack security guards and medical personnel.

Such violence has emerged as an act of desperation. Other dire situations have emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As recently reported by Health Issues India, fraudsters have taken advantage of many individuals in need of medical treatment

“Evidence is mounting that individuals are running scamming campaigns through social media, with black market numbers circulating online. These individuals promise to deliver items such as oxygen canisters and medications. When contacted, these individuals typically request payments upfront, and…once payment has been made all contact will cease.”

With the most recent daily case count totalling 379,459, the surge in COVID-19 cases is still ongoing. International aid is set to arrive over the coming days and weeks to fill the gaps in essential supplies such as oxygen and raw materials for the creation of more vaccinations. However, many individuals believe the worst is yet to come as the possibility looms of other countries following in India’s footsteps. “We’re following the pattern of the 1918 pandemic,” warned Dr Ayoade Alajika, who is leading efforts to get vaccines to Africa. “The first year killed about one million people. The second, some fifty million.”

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